Roland A50 & A80
MIDI Keyboard Controllers
As MIDI equipment becomes more and more sophisticated, the job of a MIDI controller keyboard becomes more and more demanding. Simon Trask takes the A train with Roland's latest MIDI controllers.
This is a story about control, control over what you do. Are you ready? It's all about control and Roland have got lots of it.
THE SILENT KEYBOARD controller and the keyboardless expander module are both natural consequences of the MIDI way of doing things, the basic premise being: why have multiple keyboards when you can get away with one? By dedicating that keyboard to MIDI performance control, manufacturers can concentrate on getting both the control facilities and the keyboard right, unencumbered by the strictures of their synthesis and sampling systems.
Unfortunately, the cost of a MIDI keyboard controller can all too often seem out of proportion to its silent status. Only Cheetah have made serious attempts at producing budget keyboard controllers, with varying degrees of success. Roland made one foray into the budget controller market with the five-octave MKB200 (reviewed MI, March '87), but on the evidence of their new A50 and A80 MIDI keyboard controllers it seems they subsequently felt - with some justification, perhaps - that it was better to up the cost and produce a sophisticated and really solid keyboard controller.
FOLLOWING IN THE tradition set by the company's original MKB1000 and MKB300 MIDI controllers (reviewed in E&MM, October '84), which were internally the same machine with two different keyboards, Roland's A50 and A80 are the same as each other in every respect bar the keyboard.
The A80 is the bigger and by far the heavier of the two instruments, sporting an 88-note piano-style keyboard, while the A50 has a 76-note synth-style version. Both are sensitive to attack velocity and polyphonic aftertouch (you can switch in channel-aftertouch "emulation" for the majority of instruments which don't respond to the superior poly version).
Personally I prefer both of these keyboards to the uncomfortably bouncy keyboard action of Akai's MX76 controller keyboard (reviewed in last month's MT). However, the A80's firm action and deep travel are perhaps trying too hard to be piano-like, and consequently the keyboard ends up being a little on the sluggish side. As if to emphasise the difference between Roland's two controllers, the A50's keyboard has a shallow, fluid action which nonetheless manages to avoid feeling flimsy. To my mind, a good synth-style keyboard makes a better all-purpose keyboard than the piano-modelled alternative, and for this reason I would go for the A50. There again, with the A80 it's possible to have the best of both worlds for a simple reason which I'll come to later.
Incidentally, for the sake of convenience I'll refer only to the A50 from now on, but all references apply also to the A80 unless specifically indicated.
THE A50'S FRONT panel has a healthy complement of low-profile buttons (with red pinpoint LEDs to indicate on/off status where appropriate), giving it a sleek, uncluttered appearance. You'll find Roland's familiar pitch/mod lever in its usual position to the left of the keyboard, but the company haven't stopped there. Above the lever are separate pitch and mod wheels for those musicians who prefer them; all that's needed is a Korg-style joystick arid then everyone would be happy.
Like Akai's MX76 controller, the A50 has been given a generous 8x40-character backlit LCD window (with adjustable contrast, courtesy of a small knob located on the rear panel). This has allowed Roland to organise the controller keyboard's parameters into a hierarchy of software "pages" which are selected using five "soft" buttons located below the LCD window. Each page lists, in inverse video along the bottom line of the LCD, the other pages that can be accessed directly from it. You move around each page using four cursor buttons, then use increment/decrement buttons to adjust parameter values.
To the left of the LCD window are four sliders and four buttons which can be assigned any combination of MIDI controllers. Rather ingeniously, the sliders can be induced to perform a second function when you latch the Edit button: most of the LCD pages are limited to a maximum of four parameters, so moving each slider both selects and edits the relevant parameter. However, you can still edit only one parameter at a time.
The four sliders also come in useful when you're entering a name: moving each one selects a space, numerals and miscellaneous characters, upper-case characters and lower-case characters respectively. It's an approach which certainly makes life easier, and that's what the A50 is all about operationally. The result of Roland's ingenuity and clever organisation is an instrument which is extremely user-friendly. Wasn't it always meant to be like this?
"The result of Roland's ingenuity and clever organisation is an instrument which is extremely user-friendly. Wasn't it always meant to be like this?"
As you might expect, the A50's rear panel sports a healthy complement of sockets: two MIDI Ins, four MIDI Outs, a MIDI Thru, and two Patch-shift inputs (up/down) together with four foot-controller inputs for sending MIDI controller data in performance (you can use any combination of footswitches and footpedals). And now for the good news: MIDI In 2 accepts MIDI data on all 16 MIDI channels (Omni on/Poly mode) and then modifies it according to all of the A50's current parameter settings before retransmitting it to the four MIDI Outs. In other words, it treats the output of an external MIDI instrument as if it was coming from the A50's own keyboard. So if you decide to buy the A50's bigger brother for its piano-style keyboard, but you'd also like to use your DX7's keyboard sometimes, all you have to do is plug your DX7 into the A80's MIDI In 1 and suddenly, as if by magic, the humble DX has all the control facilities of the A80. On the other hand, if you already own an electronic piano, you'd be better off combining it with an A50.
Both keyboards are active at the same time, so you can easily switch from one to the other, or even play them both at the same time (but only if you wear your very best Rick Wakeman cape). Incidentally, Akai's MX76 controller keyboard echoes its MIDI In data unchanged by its onboard control facilities.
If you're using the A50 for playing live - that's live as in no sequencing is involved - the value of having four MIDI Outs is clear: it reduces the need for chaining MIDI instruments. However, as soon as a sequencer enters the picture, things become a little less clear. Let's say you're routing MIDI Out 1 to your sequencer and MIDI Outs 2-4 to your slaved MIDI instruments. How do you get sequenced parts to these instruments? You hook your sequencer up to MIDI In 1. This accepts MIDI data on all 16 MIDI channels and passes it on to the four Outs and the Thru, along the way mixing in any data from the A50's keyboard and MIDI In 2. Unfortunately there's no way of specifying which MIDI Outs the sequencer data will be sent to, which means that it'll be sent back to the sequencer. If you've been foolish enough to enable your sequencer's MIDI Thru function, you'll find you've got a MIDI feedback loop.
Even if you disable MIDI Thru on the sequencer, you're still faced with the impossibility of recording a new part while looping back already-recorded parts to the A50, because the sequencer will re-record whatever it's playing back.
This unfortunate state of affairs could have been avoided if Roland had included a facility to selectively disable MIDI In 1 throughput to the MIDI Outs. As it is, hanging your slave instruments directly off the sequencer is a preferable option - and if your sequencer can independently address more than one MIDI Out, you get the benefit of more flexible routing anyway.
THE A50 ALLOWS you to create up to four keyboard Zones, each of which can be assigned its own independent MIDI transmit channel and MIDI note range. This range can be anything from a single note to the entire MIDI-communicable span of 10 1/2 octaves (beyond the A50's span, but there are potential uses for those extra notes). You can use the Zones to create a four-way split, a four-deep layer, or any overlap configuration in between. These and other control-parameter settings are stored in 64 Patches, and can be recalled from the instrument's front panel, the Patch shift up/down footswitch inputs on the rear panel, or MIDI patch changes received via MIDI In 2. In the latter case, you can define the MIDI receive channel (1-16) or disable reception on a global basis.
The output of each Zone is transmitted on all four of the A50's MIDI Outs; however, you can solo a particular Out, or mute any combination of Outs, from front-panel buttons much as you would solo or mute channels on a mixing desk. These settings are stored automatically as part of the current Patch. Similarly, you can solo or mute individual Zones at any time, with settings stored as part of a Patch. The A50 gets round the potential problem of hanging notes by simply not allowing you to solo or mute an Out or a Zone while notes are active over MIDI.
Each Patch can be given its own 16-character name, making it easy to identify when you step through the catalogue of Patches in the LCD window (up to eight Patches at a time can be displayed). Individual Zones within a Patch can be transposed +/-3 octaves in semitone steps, and each Zone can be given its own MIDI patch number, volume level, modulation amount and pitchbend on/off state (the first three of these being transmitted when the Patch is called up).
Each of the A50's physical controllers (the four foot, slider and switch controllers) can be assigned a MIDI controller (0-121), auto tune or MIDI mode functions per Patch. What's more, each of these can be programmed with the same or a different controller for each Zone. In this way you can, for instance, control MIDI volume for all four Zones from a single slider, or control the volume for each Zone from a different slider for live mixing; use a single footswitch to sustain two Zones in a four-Zone layer; and use two footpedals to bring in separate modulation on fretless bass and lead synth sounds in a two-Zone split. Call up a new Patch and you can have a completely different set of MIDI controller assignments at your fingertips (not to mention your feet).
"Perhaps the most reassuring button on the A5O's front panel is the Panic button - this sends Note Off commands for every note on every channel."
A MIDI controller keyboard has to be able to contend with playing a wide variety of sounds on a wide variety of instruments. Consequently, on the A50 Roland have allowed you to define velocity and aftertouch curves and associated parameters for each Zone within a Patch. There are seven curves to choose from for attack velocity, including one inverse curve, while the associated parameters allow you to scale the curve (from 50% to 200%), add a fixed offset (0-127) and introduce a "holdoff' (effectively a minimum velocity transmission value). By selecting different curves for two or more layered Zones and playing around with the other parameters, you can introduce all manner of velocity mix and velocity crossfade effects. To output a constant velocity, regardless of the actual keyboard velocity, set a scale value of zero and add an offset; the A50 will then output notes only at a velocity equal to that offset.
A similar set of parameters exists for aftertouch, again for each Zone within a Patch. The only differences are that there's no inverted curve, and no offset parameter. However, additionally, for each Zone within a Patch you can select polyphonic or channel aftertouch transmission, or, alternatively, disable transmission (after all, if a sound doesn't require aftertouch, why transmit it unnecessarily?).
Perhaps the most reassuring button on the A50's front panel is the Panic button. When you press this, the controller sends Note Off commands for every note on every channel - guaranteed to silence any hanging notes. Some witty soul at Roland has programmed a popup window on the LCD screen which bears the message "Zzzzzzzzzzzz"; I take it this means the A50 is putting your MIDI instruments to sleep.
Like both the MX76 and Oberheim's Systemizer standalone controller unit (reviewed MT, April '89), the A50 allows you to send patch changes on up to four more MIDI channels per Patch. These are collectively known as Effector Channel Program Changes, and if enabled are sent whenever a Patch is called up. The "Effector" label recognises that the most likely use for these extra patch changes is to call up different effect settings on MIDI'd signal processors. but this is by no means the only use you could, for instance, dedicate one MIDI channel to calling up "snapshot" mixes on an automated mixing package.
Also potentially useful is the A50's ability to accept (via MIDI In 2) and store SysEx dumps within each Patch, up to an overall total of around 13,000 bytes. The data within each Patch will then be transmitted automatically to the relevant slaves when the Patch is called up.
THE A50 ALLOWS you to create your own Patch sequences in up to 32 Chains, each of which allows you to link together a maximum of 32 Patches. Chains can be stepped through using the front-panel cursor buttons or the Patch shift up/down footswitches. As well as being able to give each Chain a 16-character name, you can give each step within the Chain a 32-character comment, so you can describe its position in a song - "verse two", "chorus" - or perhaps refer to the sound(s) it calls up.
I do have one quibble with Roland's implementation of the Chain facility (and with Patch selection per se). The A50 won't step to a new Patch while notes or a sustain pedal are held down, so consequently you can't "overlap" sounds in different Patches. There are so many instances where it would be advantageous to have such a facility that its absence is positively anti-musical. For some reason, American companies such as Ensoniq and Kurzweil have always paid attention to this matter, while the Japanese companies haven't. A minus point for Roland on this one, I'm afraid.
From the Chain Play page you can Start and Stop a sequencer or drum machine using "soft" buttons four and five, and send a Song Select command (1-128) by pressing the Song button and using the Group/Bank/Number selector buttons. These commands are sent on all the active Outs.
"When you buy one of Roland's new controllers you're effectively adding its control facilities to whatever MIDI instrument you care to plug into it."
However, the A50 provides no tempo facility, nor can you Continue a sequence, which makes Roland's implementation of remote sequencer control a bit half-hearted. If you're going to control a sequencer from a keyboard, how about being able to create a master tempo track for each Chain? Sounds interesting? Well, you won't find such a feature here (nor on any other controller keyboard that I can think of offhand).
The A50's Patch and Chain data remains in memory through power-down, but nonetheless if you find yourself needing more than the controller's onboard storage capacity, you can store the internal memory to RAM card, or transfer it via MIDI SysEx to remote storage. Using a RAM card doesn't double the A50's memory capacity, as you have to load the data off the card before you can use it. Unfortunately, you can only bulk dump the A50's memory. Do Roland truly think that in the real world no-one will ever want to combine Patches and Chains from different memory dumps? Another minus point, chaps.
Finally, on a more positive note, I must for once heap praise rather than scorn on the accompanying manual. Not only have Roland included an index, but the standard of English has improved considerably, as has the standard of proofreading. Also, the inclusion at relevant points throughout the manual of photos of the A50's LCD pages is a good idea.
TRYING TO SUM up in my mind how l feel about the A50 and the A80, I keep coming back to one word: comfortable. Comfortable with the keyboard(s), comfortable with the sturdy construction, the chic design, the well-conceived control facilities, the user-friendly operation even with the manual.
In contrast, Akai's MX76 is, to me, an uncomfortable instrument. Uncomfortable edges, uncomfortable keyboard, uncomfortable operation, uncomfortable buttons and sliders - and, yes, an uncomfortable manual. Sorry Akai, I have to be honest about this.
But there's no getting around the fact that Roland's latest keyboard controllers don't come cheap. And so the perennial question arises: should your next purchase emit sounds or remain silent? For instance, Roland's new W30 Music Workstation includes a sampler and a sequencer within its casing, yet it retails for the same price as the A80. I guess the answer to the question depends on what you've already got in the way of sound-producing instruments, and whether or not you feel your playing could benefit from the attentions of an A50 or an A80.
Bear in mind that when you buy one of Roland's new controllers you're also in effect buying its control facilities for whatever MIDI keyboard or other MIDI instrument you care to plug into it. Yes, that old DX7 can become a sophisticated MIDI controller after all. In this way you can buy an A80 and double it up with a synth keyboard, or buy an A50 and double it up with a piano-style keyboard (an electronic piano, for instance).
There are many clever and thoughtful touches on the A50 and A80 - as you might expect from an instrument which has been a long time in development (the A50 was debuted at last year's BMF). But that makes it all the more surprising when certain lapses show up, such as the fact that the four MIDI Outs can't be individually addressed, or the fact that notes can't overlap a Patch change. It's also a shame that you can't have layered MIDI channels per Zone, as on Oberheim's Systemizer; with the growing number of budget multitimbral instruments making composite sounds ever more practical, it would be a useful feature to have.
But none of this detracts from the sheer quality and professional feel of the A50 and A80. In the final analysis, they are very impressive instruments, and I for one am sold on them (well, I would be if I had the money).
Warning; if you enter the comfort zone you might not want to return.
Prices A50, £1399; A80, £1599. Both prices include VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask